NYU Prof Spurs Fresh Debate Over ‘Distancing’


In a provocative opinion piece in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz last week, noted American Jewish historian Hasia Diner vented her rage against Israel for its policies towards Palestinians, saying she “abhor[s] visiting” Israel, refuses to donate money to it or buy its products.

A companion article by history professor Marjorie Feld voiced similar distress and suggested that their views represent “something much larger” in the American Jewish community.

But is there a growing disaffection with Israel by American Jews?

Interviews with sociologists and representatives of other Jewish organizations across the political spectrum found that although others oppose Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, the number who would turn their backs on Israel is small.

“I agree that there is a distancing from Israel, but I do not want to give up on Israel,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “I want to fight for the Israel we all dream of.”

“I don’t know the numbers,” she continued. “But there is a trend among young people who are more and more disillusioned with the occupation and the support it receives from mainstream Jewish organizations.”

Sociologist Steven M. Cohen said that surveys have found that “liberals — both Jewish and non-Jewish — are increasingly alienated from Israel.”

Cohen, a research professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem-Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, said such alienation was particularly profound in recent years.

“The Pew study of Americans in 2014 found that liberals were twice as likely to sympathize with Israel as they were with Palestinians,” he said. “But by 2016, they had shifted to sympathize more with Palestinians than Israelis. If Jews who are liberal are acting like Americans who are liberal, we can assume liberal Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel.”

Nevertheless, Cohen said, “Most American Jews who are critical of Israel still retain a love of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”

Ari Y. Kelman, associate professor of religious studies at Stanford University, questioned whether the two women are “representative of anything other than the evolution of their own political beliefs.”

“There have been anti-Zionists in the Jewish community for a long time,” he said. “What they are saying is something new — that they are done criticizing Israel because they are stepping out of the conversation. … I know there are people who agree 100 percent with them. Is it trending? I have no idea. [But] when I speak to young people, I hear, ‘I don’t want to talk about Israel.’”

Nevertheless, Leonard Saxe, professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Brandeis University, said his studies have concluded that there has “never been a generation of young people who are as engaged [with] and knowledgeable about Israel as this one.”

He said the number of Jews 18 to 30 who have been to Israel doubled to nearly 50 percent in the last 25 years because of free trips provided by programs such as Birthright. As a result, Saxe said, they are “more critical of the government in the same way people here care deeply about the American project and are critical of the government.”

“That is not an indicator that one is no longer a Zionist or a patriot, but rather it is an expression of concern for society,” he added. “To the extent their position represents people who are distancing themselves from Israel, it is a relatively small group.”

Besides, Israel is “so much more than its politics,” according to Margo Gold of Atlanta, president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“All Jews have a homeland in Israel and we should be engaged in the conversations and speak up,” she said. “There are plenty of reasons for people to be disheartened, but that does not preclude one from standing by Israel and wanting Israel to be the most successful society it could be. I get mad when people want to take their ball and go home.”

But in an interview with The Jewish Week, Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, described as “corrosive” Israel’s “occupation” of the territories and said her concern about the issue has been “festering in me for about 40 years.”

“Visiting Israel, living there and being involved, I kept thinking this would end — but all I have seen is a kind of hardening,” she said. “I have spent a decade defending Israel to others and I just said I can’t do it anymore. As a Jewish state, it is speaking in my name and I don’t want that in my name.”

About 10 years ago, Diner said, she left her synagogue because the congregation regularly recited a prayer for the State of Israel.

“I couldn’t take it,” she said. “I started sitting down and then I stopped going and quit.”

Such comments have angered Israel supporters, including Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“What we see now are people who are putting forth their own agendas and projecting their own biases without considering the ramifications or veracity of what they are saying,” he said. “It is one thing to do it within the confines of the community in order to effect some change, it is another to use public vehicles that … often give aid and comfort to our enemies.”

Feld, a professor of history at Babson College in Massachusetts, defended their essays, saying they “sparked a debate about these issues in a healthy way.”

“These are central issues in the American Jewish community, and the idea that someone wants to silence this debate is very troubling to me,” she said. “Someone called the essays anguished, and you don’t feel anguish about a community you don’t care about. My hope is that engaging in this conversation will loosen things up so that there is a vision for peace we can take to Israel.”

Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, said the essays were an “accurate reflection of a growing trend in the Jewish community.”

“Israel claims to speak for Jews throughout the world and a lot of Jews of conscience feel the need to speak out against Israeli policies that lead to oppression and human rights violations,” she said.

Another organization critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is IfNotNow, a group founded last November that has 400 members, each of whom attended a two-day training session in which they were taught that Israel will not be “safe and secure until the occupation ends,” according to Yonah Lieberman, one of its volunteer leaders.

“We are trying to end the Jewish community’s support for the occupation,” he said. “Jewish federations, Jewish National Fund, AIPAC, ADL, JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council] and many synagogues, day schools and summer camps all are crucial pillars of support for the occupation.”

Lieberman added that he has not turned his back on Israel and plans to visit next spring.

But Diner said flatly that she sees “no hope” for Israel’s future.

“I have no sense of optimism,” she added. “But I’m perfectly happy to be wrong.”